LinkedIn's Ex-Marketing Chief: How to Build an "Online Sunshine" Network

Last Updated Mar 1, 2011 10:13 AM EST

Sungevity, the four-year-old California-based solar company, wants to expand its footprint from a few Western states to the Northeast and beyond. It's turned to Patrick Crane, former marketing chief at professional networking site LinkedIn, to get the job done by spreading and investing in the company's social networks.

BNET spoke to Crane recently about his shift to a renewable energy company and how he will create a "network effect" around solar panels.

BNET: Why did you jump into the renewable energy industry?
Crane: I have a four-year-old boy, and when you have kids you suddenly become a lot more concerned about the world you're going to leave behind. It wasn't just about an exploding industry, which cleantech is. It also was just wanting to have as much of a direct impact as possible in clean conduct.

BNET: Why go to a solar start-up like Sungevity instead a larger cleantech company?
Crane: A recruiter reached out to me and listed off a few companies I wasn't really interested in and the last one was this thing called Sungevity. Before agreeing to talk about the opportunity I went to the Sunvegity website and got myself an iQuote. What happens is you tell the company via the website where you live and they take mapping technology and in 24 hours they show your house with what your installation will look like; what you spend per day on dirty energy and what you will spend with the Sungevity solar lease.

It was a genuine wow experience and so I went back to the recruiter and said I want to talk to these guys.

BNET: What are your plans are for Sungevity? Is this going to be selling solar panels through Twitter and Facebook?
Crane: Sungevity already has a good presence on Facebook and Twitter. You know every company does, so you know it's table stakes. Where I think the biggest opportunity lies is introducing a network effect amongst Sungevity customers and everyone else they interact with everyday.

That's a much bigger idea than clever programming of a Twitter handle or nice pretty Facebook page. And I think that there is just huge untapped potential in creating a network effect amongst the Sungevity customer base.

BNET: How will you create this network effect?
Crane: The very beginnings of it are already underway. Sungevity has something called the Sunshine Network. When your installation is completed, like mine was, you get this is nice little welcome pack into the Sunshine Network. So that network has already begun. What happens today is very simple and very effective and that is, if you successfully refer a friend or colleague, neighbor, family member, whatever and they become a Sungevity customer, you get $1,000. What we've already discovered is if a family member approaches you, you are four or five times more likely to become a customer than if a Sungevity representative approaches you.

BNET: Sungevity already has incentives and has a network, how do you expand that?
Crane: My big focus area will be to accelerate the Sunshine network. One of things you can do to unlock that is to take a bunch of happy customers and turn them into advocates. I think it goes way beyond just financial incentives.

You need to have a much closer dialogue with your customers -- and this is not follow us on Twitter. This is about customer events, this is about face-to-face dialogue; this is about enabling your customers to self organize, to get together and form new contacts because of their mutual interest in the technology. It's not always financial incentives, it's social incentives. It's recognition, it's dialogue. and if we can introduce those types programs with our existing customer base then I think we will have that network effect. We'll have customers who are much more informed, more passionate and more of an advocate.

BNET: What tools are you going to do that? Is this going to be something tech-based considering a lot of Sungevity customers live far from each other?
Crane: If you really want the referral process to work well you've got to take all the points of friction out. I not only want to be able to monitor my system, see how it's doing, see what energy it's producing, see what I'm saving, see the CO2 that isn't there; but I also want to be able to place this information (via an app) on a smart phone and show friends or create an iQuote on the fly. Because again, it's all very well to be able to go to Sungevity.com and do that while you're sitting by your desktop. But when you're in a social environment and you want to talk about it and show what's happening and pull other people into, that's where the bigger opportunity lies.

Another thing you can do increasingly now because of social media platforms, is to take interesting data and aggregate it. So again, it's all very well for me, my wife and little guy to know we are saving money and pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere in our own little way. But it gets more interesting when I know what we as a collective Sungevity base are doing.

That's another way to get people really inspired and feel part of something bigger than just a bunch of panels on a roof. There's a huge potential for not just advocacy, but even activism. For people to say 'Hey, we've got to get going on this, let's get the whole street on this thing.' It has that kind of potential.

BNET: When will these smart apps rollout?
Crane: We hope to start some testing in spring of these kinds of tools and see how they perform. And they should be able to see these tools by summer, at least that's my hope.

BNET: How do you create an advocate or even an application for advocates?
Crane: Well this is what I've got to learn as I get more intimate with the customer base. Of those who have that advocacy, in what environments? With who? When did the topic come up? What did they talk about? If I understand that then we can build the right applications, the right information services to equip them with what they need.

Photo from Flickr user Living Off the Grid, CC 2.0